Wednesday, October 28, 2009

He won't be the last

I felt great sympathy today at the news that a State Department representative has resigned in protest at US policies in Afghanistan.

When Matthew Hoh joined the Foreign Service early this year, he was exactly the kind of smart civil-military hybrid the administration was looking for to help expand its development efforts in Afghanistan.

A former Marine Corps captain with combat experience in Iraq, Hoh had also served in uniform at the Pentagon, and as a civilian in Iraq and at the State Department. By July, he was the senior U.S. civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban hotbed.

But last month, in a move that has sent ripples all the way to the White House, Hoh, 36, became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe simply fueled the insurgency.

"I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan," he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department's head of personnel. "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end."

The reaction to Hoh's letter was immediate. Senior U.S. officials, concerned that they would lose an outstanding officer and perhaps gain a prominent critic, appealed to him to stay.

U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry brought him to Kabul and offered him a job on his senior embassy staff. Hoh declined. From there, he was flown home for a face-to-face meeting with Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"We took his letter very seriously, because he was a good officer," Holbrooke said in an interview. "We all thought that given how serious his letter was, how much commitment there was, and his prior track record, we should pay close attention to him."

While he did not share Hoh's view that the war "wasn't worth the fight," Holbrooke said, "I agreed with much of his analysis." He asked Hoh to join his team in Washington, saying that "if he really wanted to affect policy and help reduce the cost of the war on lives and treasure," why not be "inside the building, rather than outside, where you can get a lot of attention but you won't have the same political impact?"

Hoh accepted the argument and the job, but changed his mind a week later. "I recognize the career implications, but it wasn't the right thing to do," he said in an interview Friday, two days after his resignation became final.

"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the "second-best job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.

"There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."

But many Afghans, he wrote in his resignation letter, are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there -- a growing military presence in villages and valleys where outsiders, including other Afghans, are not welcome and where the corrupt, U.S.-backed national government is rejected. While the Taliban is a malign presence, and Pakistan-based al-Qaeda needs to be confronted, he said, the United States is asking its troops to die in Afghanistan for what is essentially a far-off civil war.

. . .

Hoh's doubts increased with Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election, marked by low turnout and widespread fraud. He concluded, he said in his resignation letter, that the war "has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency."

With "multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups," he wrote, the insurgency "is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and Nato presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified."

American families, he said at the end of the letter, "must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can be made any more."

. . .

Ruggiero said that he was taken aback by Hoh's resignation but that he made no effort to dissuade him. "It's Matt's decision, and I honored, I respected" it, he said. "I didn't agree with his assessment, but it was his decision."

Eikenberry expressed similar respect, but declined through an aide to discuss "individual personnel matters."

Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., Eikenberry's deputy, said he met with Hoh in Kabul but spoke to him "in confidence. I respect him as a thoughtful man who has rendered selfless service to our country, and I expect most of Matt's colleagues would share this positive estimation of him, whatever may be our differences of policy or program perspectives."

This week, Hoh is scheduled to meet with Vice President Biden's foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken, at Blinken's invitation.

If the United States is to remain in Afghanistan, Hoh said, he would advise a reduction in combat forces.

He also would suggest providing more support for Pakistan, better U.S. communication and propaganda skills to match those of al-Qaeda, and more pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up government corruption -- all options being discussed in White House deliberations.

"We want to have some kind of governance there, and we have some obligation for it not to be a bloodbath," Hoh said. "But you have to draw the line somewhere, and say this is their problem to solve."

There's much more at the link. Highly recommended reading.

I've written about the problem of Afghanistan several times. Everything Mr. Hoh says - or is quoted as saying - in this article matches what I've read in many historical sources. We've walked into a centuries-old conflict, of which the Taleban and Al Qaeda are merely the latest forms of expression. There's no military solution. If we want to win, the answers must be found elsewhere - and no previous power that's entered the region, from Alexander the Great, through the British Empire, to (most recently) the Soviet Union, has been able to do so.

I salute Mr. Hoh for his honesty and courage in speaking out as he has. Despite what 'armchair warriors' may say, he's genuinely living up to his US Marine Corps heritage.



Anonymous said...

This Marine agrees, Peter. The Afstan fighting will continue with or without our presence. Without a national strategy dictated from the leaders of our country, the military effort is doomed and will continue to produce Anerican casualties. Vietnam redux, anyone?


Rick R. said...

I cannot say I agree with his conclusions. However, that's not the important part.

At least he has the courage to carry his convictions to the logical end.